Why isn't there an iPod for electronic books (eBooks)? And where's the eBook equivalent of an iTunes store? Last month Sony launched two products in the US that it hopes will address both issues.
The Sony Reader is a paperback-sized device with a 15cm screen that can store about 80 eBooks, or hundreds on a plug-in memory card. The US$350 Reader is joined by a new online service, Connect, which offers more than 10,000 eBooks from publishers such as Simon & Schuster, Random House, Penguin, HarperCollins and Harlequin.
So is the eBook market finally coming of age?
Nick Bogaty, executive director of the International Digital Publishers Forum (IDPF), says: "I've always said that four factors need to be in place for the market to take off. You need a device that makes reading pleasurable, content at the right price, a great selection of content and eBooks that are easy to use. We're definitely getting closer to these goals."
On the face of it, an eBook is an attractive proposition, not least because it can offer features difficult or impossible to find in a printed book, such as hyperlinks, multimedia content, cut and paste, high degrees of interactivity and updated content. It can be downloaded and read instantly, and publishers don't have to transport huge volumes of books around the country and store them in warehouses. It can be read on a PC, a PDA, a smartphone or a dedicated device, like Sony's Reader.
But despite these benefits, even Bogaty admits that eBooks are still a cottage industry. The US market was worth about US$15 million last year and sales for the first half of the year totaled only 907,000. In 2004, US firms published 2.3 billion books worldwide; only 0.1 percent of them were eBooks.
The eBook sector has faced four major hurdles: construction, cost, content and culture. Constructing a reading device is much more challenging than making a digital music player, says Bill McCoy, general manager of Adobe's e-publishing business.
"Music has been digital since the CD, so it's quite simple to do. And digital players use a very simple interface -- headphones. An eBook reader needs sophisticated display technology and a long battery life."
Paper remains the best medium for text reading, and until recently it has been hard to offer similar clarity on a screen. But the development of e-ink technology, which uses millions of black and white microcapsules on a screen from the E-ink Corporation, has dramatically improved text on a screen. Sony's Reader uses e-ink and the company says its battery will last for up to 7,500 page turns.
Dutch electronics giant Philips has developed a prototype rollable electronic display and a Philips spinoff, Irex Technologies, markets a rival eBook device, iLiad (at about US$830), which includes Wi-Fi.
So far, Apple has not made the iPod an eBook reader as well. When asked if it had eBook plans, the company said: "We don't discuss unannounced products. Our iTunes store offers thousands of audio books."
Daniel Duris has developed iPod eBook Creator, an unofficial tool for converting text files into iPod eBooks, while iPrePPress publishes iPod eBooks for students.
The eBook sector is also trying to address one of the biggest issues -- standardization. There is a plethora of eBook file formats (Adobe, Sony, Microsoft, Mobipocket and eReader all use proprietary file formats), reader software and digital rights management (DRM) systems. The latter is used by the book publisher to control how the eBook is used, for instance, restricting its use to a unique device or offering limited copying facilities.